ATLANTA — You’re going to hear a lot in the next week about the phenomenal architecture that is the roof atop Mercedes-Benz Stadium. You’ll see the delicate latticework appear to spiral open like a camera’s eye, a blending of 21st-century technology with first-century classical design. You might even get to see the roof open during the Super Bowl itself, a grand spectacle that the NFL will treat with all the splendor and ceremony of a papal visit.
Trust us: The roof deserves every bit of that acclaim. Here’s how it all came together … and how it all breaks apart.
Up in the roof
There’s a small catwalk that starts behind the last row of MBS’s Section 314, just past a locked chain-link gate topped with concertina wire. You step onto this catwalk, the route to the roof, and within a few steps you’re 30 stories above the field. Only a narrow aluminum floor rests between your feet and the seats hundreds of feet below.
Walk a little further – white-knuckle those railings on either side of you, that’s fine – and you’re behind the halo board, 58 feet tall and 1,100 vertiginous feet across. Up the stairs behind the halo board, through a small hatchway, and you’re right up under the sprawling roof. It’s got the intricate, exposed-girders feel of an in-town loft. But if you can envision the entire roof of a Home Depot or Wal-Mart moving above you, that’s more on-point.
“[Falcons owner] Arthur Blank said from the start that he wanted to create a venue that would change the experience of going to a game,” says Bill Johnson, lead designer for the architectural firm HOK. “He wanted to create an icon, smoothing that had never been seen before.”
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In creating MBS’s design, HOK drew inspiration from the Roman Pantheon. There, a central hole in the ceiling – known as the “Oculus” – brings a thin beam of sunlight into the temple’s heart. Today, nearly 19 centuries later, the touchpad used to open the roof at MBS has a sign above it that reads “Oculus,” and artwork of the Pantheon hangs in many of the stadium’s club suites.
When the call comes to open the roof, a tech will place a finger on the touchpad – that’s all it takes – and the roof will come to life. (The tech must keep a finger on the touchpad for all eight minutes of the roof’s opening; breaking contact stops the roof’s movement.)
The camera’s-eye effect observed when the roof opens and closes is an optical illusion. The roof doesn’t actually spin; it’s a combination of eight separate “petals” that each move in a straight line at 45-degree angles to one another. It’s a stark departure from the standard garage-door-style opening style of retractable roof stadiums, where the retracted roofs create vast tracts of unusable space.
Each of MBS’s petals extends about 200 feet inward to the center of the stadium, locking to form a seal. The material covering the roof is a lightweight ETFE fabric inflated like a thin pillow; using plastic or glass would have turned the dome into a humid greenhouse, which would be a profoundly unpleasant fan experience.
The petals slide open on 720-foot-long tracks, two per petal. Opening the roof takes eight minutes, closing it, seven. (For reference, AT&T Stadium in Dallas, Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, and University of Phoenix Stadium in Arizona all take 12 minutes to open; NRG Stadium in Houston takes 10 minutes.)
“There’s such a coolness factor with Mercedes-Benz Stadium,” says Mark Silvera, president of Uni-Systems Engineering, one of the project’s contractors and a specialist in roof design. “Nobody’s ever built anything like this in North America. It really is a modern wonder of the world.”
Building a masterpiece on deadline
Groundbreaking at the site of the future MBS took place in May 2014, with a hard deadline of the 2017 season. That was, to put it gently, not the ideal timeline for a complex, $1.6 billion project, and as the stadium blew past one targeted opening date after another – March 1, 2017, then June 1, then July 30, and finally August 26 – suspicion about the roof’s viability continued to grow. MBS officials insisted that the wait would be worthwhile.
“It wasn’t that the roof didn’t work,” says Scott Jenkins, MBS general manager, of that frustrating in-process period in 2017. “The work wasn’t yet complete to our satisfaction.”
The stadium opened for business in August, and the roof opened for the Falcons’ 2017 home opener against the Green Bay Packers. The feel of the open roof is dramatically different from the closed sterility of a dome; the air is fresher and more real, if that makes sense, and the natural sunlight flooding in during day games gives the stadium the aura of an outdoor field.
“It’s the king of football stadiums,” Silvera says. “Atlanta has taken the crown from Dallas.”
Will the roof be open for the Super Bowl?
It’s entirely possible. While the Falcons have the right to open the roof during the regular season, the decision now rests with the NFL. And the league has instructed Mercedes-Benz Stadium to be prepared for the possibility that the roof could be open. The NFL will make the final call on opening or closing the roof no less than 90 minutes before kickoff.
Weather averages for Atlanta on Feb. 3 have run from a high of 55 to a low of 34, with a record high of 68. The sun will set at 6:11 p.m., about 20 minutes before kickoff. Current forecasts are tracking a little cooler than normal, so it’s not likely the roof will be open during the game itself.
“I think we’ll have an opportunity to show off our hardware – show how the roof opens and closes. That’s my hope and the hope of the league,” Blank told The Athletic. When pressed, Blank replied, “You’ll just have to wait and see and be surprised like everybody else.”
If you’re looking for another proposition to entertain you during the Super Bowl, there’s this: Opening and closing the roof takes a total of 15 minutes. Halftime is 30 minutes. Could Big Boi parachute in from East Point to perform with Maroon 5? You do the math.
Regardless, when you’re watching the game on Sunday, keep your eye out for shots of the roof. Trust us, you’ve never seen anything like it.
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